Shared attentional control of smooth eye movement and perception

Vision Res. 1987;27(9):1603-18. doi: 10.1016/0042-6989(87)90168-4.


Subjects performed a concurrent smooth pursuit and perceptual task to determine whether smooth pursuit eye movements and perception share the same attentional mechanism. Subjects pursued a pair of eccentric rows of moving characters while simultaneously attempting to identify and locate the single numeral in these target rows and the single numeral in a pair of untracked background rows, which moved at a different velocity. Average smooth pursuit gain (eye velocity/target velocity) was 0.7 to 1. Visual search was better for target rows (approximately 65% correct) than for background rows (approximately 22% correct). Superior search performance for the target was not due to its lower retinal speed: performance on the target was 2-3 times better than on the background when retinal speeds were the same. Superior performance for the pursuit target suggests that smooth eye movements and perception share the same selective attentional mechanism. A shared attentional mechanism was further supported by findings that subjects could not: (1) maintain a stable line of sight on a central stationary point while simultaneously attending to moving rows; and (2) pursue one pair of rows and attend the other, untracked rows. Attempts to attend untracked rows did, however, produce a partial improvement in search performance which was accompanied by only a very slight change in eye velocity. This demonstrates that the effects of decisions about how to apportion attention across the visual field depend on the task. Despite the common selective attentional mechanism, smooth eye movements do not provide accurate external indicators of attention unless the consequences of attentional decisions for performance are determined separately for oculomotor and for perceptual tasks.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Attention / physiology*
  • Eye Movements*
  • Female
  • Fixation, Ocular
  • Humans
  • Motion Perception / physiology*
  • Pursuit, Smooth*
  • Retina / physiology
  • Time Factors